‘Emancipation’ movie review: Will Smith stars in half-baked slavery-era chronicle

Director Antoine Fuqua, whose filmography ranges from ‘Training Day’ to ‘King Arthur,’ attempts to fit different genres into the script, which constantly aspires to be a gospel movie... something it fulfils towards the end

Published - December 09, 2022 02:00 pm IST

Will Smith in ‘Emancipation’

Will Smith in ‘Emancipation’ | Photo Credit: Apple TV+

The thing that strikes you more than anything else in Antoine Fuqua’s slavery-era chronicle Emancipation is not the dehumanising cruelty that marked the era; it is the constant invocation of god and religion even in the most inopportune moments. Sample this. Peter (Will Smith), the runaway slave, saves a grievously-injured young girl from a house that is burning down. When he is about to fetch her some water, after ensuring that she is safe, she stops him and hands him a cross, which a few scenes later would become a useful tool for him.

At other points, when Peter or some of his fellow slaves are facing utmost cruelty at the hands of white men of the South, Peter again invokes god. When he is wading through the swamps, with the slave hunters in hot pursuit, he almost hears or feels his wife invoking god from far, far away. Not to be left behind, the slave owners themselves are heard telling their victims that slavery is the will of god and about how the holy book says that a good slave should be obedient to his masters. At that moment, one almost hopes that screenwriter Bill Collage is probably attempting to portray how religion was used as a tool by the slave owners — and also to look at how it acted as a safety valve — filling the slave with hope of a better tomorrow and preventing them from rebelling.

But Emancipation is quite sincere in its religiosity, which is not something that can be said of its portrayal of the era that it is focusing on, although it certainly wants to be. The script draws its source material from the famous photograph of the scourged back of Gordon, a runaway slave of the 1860s. The photograph was used by abolitionist whites as a means to turn public opinion against slavery. The makers of this movie also have such intentions, especially at a time when the Confederate flag is being waved by proud boys and other far-right groups.

These lofty intentions do not always translate into screen as the movie just does not manage to go deeper into the skin of the American South of the 1800s, despite spending considerable time in taking us through the dangerous swamps of Louisiana, along with Peter, as he escapes from slavery and runs towards the Union military camp in Baton Rouge after Abraham Lincoln has made the Emancipation Proclamation.

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa
Storyline: The story of Peter, a man who escapes from slavery, relying on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family to evade cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on his quest for freedom

Peter, who was earlier dragged away from his family, to work on a railroad network, is a man who can’t help but stare back at his oppressors, an act which is sure to attract a whipping. At the camp, it is the famed slave hunter Fassel (Ben Foster) who runs things, and it will not be long before he notices the disobedient Peter. Before that, we hear Fassel narrate to his fellow white men an unconvincing story about how he came to hate Black people. Even without that story, anyone with a sense of history of that era would have understood how slavery was the normal for the majority of the Southern whites.

However, there are other points where the script comes across as more intelligent. In one such scene, Peter is running across a field outside a huge mansion, probably of a plantation owner. A young, innocent-looking girl at the breakfast table with her family, spots him. One would expect the little one to remain silent, protecting the runaway slave with her silence. But she proceeds to stand up and scream, “Runner, runner!”, pointing at him and repeatedly clanging a bell that would alert the pursuing white men. She probably never listened to a story that would make her hate Black people, but must have learned things from her surroundings.

Antoine Fuqua, whose filmography ranges from Training Day to King Arthur, attempts to fit different genres into the movie. When Peter is being pursued through the swamps, it becomes a survival drama, complete with a quick fight involving an alligator, and later it aspires to be a war movie too. Not to forget its aspirations of being a gospel movie; the one aspiration which it manages to fulfil in the end. But he does show that Lincoln’s Union Army also did not provide a paradise for the runaway slaves... rather they were meant to be obedient there too.

Despite the script providing room only for cardboard characters, Will Smith, at some points, portrays Peter as someone who has internalised all the bottled-up pain and rage. Charmaine Bingwa, who plays Peter’s wife Dodienne, effectively uses the few scenes that were written for her. Emancipation has all the good intentions, but comes across as a half-baked work on one of the most shameful eras in history.

Emancipation is currently streaming on Apple TV+

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